Motion Sickness: Live Recordings, a documentation of Bright Eyes’ 2005 tour in support of his paired albums I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning and Digital Ash in a Digital Urn, had a limited release a couple of years ago. But, in concordance with the artist’s rise to more mainstream success, it’s being reissued to wider circulation just in time for the holidays. At the end of ‘05, the album sounded remarkably restrained for a singer whose most powerful moments were driven by his reckless surrender to his own wracking emotion. This year it seems a strange step backwards. Oh well, maybe it’s a Christmas present for the fan in your family who hasn’t heard it yet. Or better a gift for those who thought this year’s Cassadaga was a tepid step towards middle-aged irrelevance, a semi-sweet palliation. But as a hook to draw new fans back towards some of Oberst’s back catalogue, it’s not quite as compelling as the albums from which this material is drawn.
For starters, I’m not one of those people who are disgruntled by Oberst’s drift towards the center. I really enjoyed the new, more mellow Cassadaga-era Connor Oberst. His songwriting’s mature but still evocative, and his wild emotion now a bit more circumscribed. Oberst’s characteristic vibrato may be the quintessential indie whine, and on his newer material it finally becomes fully an asset (no longer even intermittently grating). In this he’s aided by a mix that boosts the lower end of his voice and the very high end of his organ/strings accompaniments. In contrast, the Oberst that’s on show on Motion Sickness seems oddly tuneless, wallowing around in his mid-range, not having yet reached the realization that he actually sounds better when reaching up to grab a more conventional melody.
It’s unfortunate that some of Motion Sickness’ more overt political statements seem a bit tired at the end of 2007. In ‘05, when we first discovered the non-album track “When the President Talks to God”, it momentarily delighted us. It seemed that, finally, someone had transcribed the nation’s discontent into a vital folk song. Somehow in the live setting, Oberst’s tuneless delivery also drains the song of its humor and it becomes a limp, ineffective remnant of past protest. And yeah, so far, not much has changed. But in the next breath the singer-songwriter proves, with a bit more subtlety, that his political point can be made with both grace and power. It’s the image of a kid playing guns with a tree branch, in “Landlocked Blues”, from I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning (which had a previous incarnation on 2003’s Saddle Creek 50 as “One Foot in Front of the Other”). The neat payoff (“If you love something, give it away”) isn’t as impressive as the lock-tight hold on his audience Oberst garners with just a few guitar strums and his strung-out narrative of dislocation.
The truth is, despite the direction Bright Eyes has taken since the early 2005 tour, there’s plenty on this album to remind us why Oberst rose to prominence, and why he deserves to stay there. True, you can trace an emerging retreat from the unhinged attack of the first big hit “Lover I Don’t Have to Love”. Apart from a few songs, like the chaotic and vital “Method Acting”, the tone of the recordings collected here is rather low-fi, if certainly anguished. But other interesting threads start to make themselves heard, too. The country edge that hovered around the songs on both 2005 albums comes out stronger in the live setting. The intermittent bloom of the strong backing band with guitars, horns, trumpets, organ and so on, sounds full and natural.
It’s not up for debate whether the prolific Nebraskan is a vital part of the discussion of singer-songwriters in the US today. Oberst’s material is in turns thrilling, stingingly emotional, or able to capture the soul-drained experience of coming of age in a dicey new millennium. (In contrast, the two covers on the album don’t really go anywhere particularly interesting; in particular, Oberst emasculates Feist’s gorgeous “Mushaboom” into a reedy imitation). I haven’t seen Bright Eyes live this year, so I can’t tell if he retains this fragile, cracking persona or if he’s evolved a smoother shell that reflects the instrumental trappings of Cassadaga. But it doesn’t matter. If Motion Sickness: Live Recordings fails to completely thrill us, it’s not a huge fault. There’s plenty to appreciate in these songs, even after their composer’s moved on to a slightly different, more circumspect perspective on life.